Article Courtesy of Channel 9 WFTV
By Todd Ulrich
Published March 22, 2021
OCALA — A devastating cybercrime that targets
homebuyers and sellers just cost a local woman more than $120,000.
It’s a crime Action 9
first exposed four years ago and it’s exploded since
COVID-19 since most home sale transactions must be done
One day Jeannine Fontaine wired money to buy her retirement
home. The next day her entire life savings had disappeared.
“It was a shock. I couldn’t believe it happened. I couldn’t
believe it happened to me,” Fontaine said.
She found a home to
buy near Ocala. Fontaine used Ellison Realty to write the
contract and Ocala Land Title Insurance for the closing.
The day before buying the home, Fontaine got an email from her realtor,
or so she thought, with specific instructions to wire $122,000 to the
bank so the title company could close the deal.
“Everything was very professional, and it had the realtor’s email
account and the attachment wiring instructions, it looked perfect,”
In a sheriff’s office report, Fontaine told deputies the wiring
instructions were fraudulent and she had sent money to scammers.
“I haven’t slept much since. Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” Fontaine said.
The home-hacking scam targets home sales posted online. Scammers search
real estate listing sites like Zillow to find a sale, then they’ll hack
into emails from realtors, title companies, homebuyers and sellers.
After gathering insider information, they’ll send spoof emails with
phony wiring instructions to steal money the moment a house sells.
“They knew where the house was, they knew the amount, they knew
everything,” Belinda Kitchen said.
She contacted Action 9 after cybercrooks posed as real title company
employees by email to steal $10,000.
The scheme has been a growing threat. According to the FBI, in Florida
alone home hackers stole $29,000,000 in 2016, and $96,000,000 in 2019,
and the losses since COVID-19 could be far worse.
“The fraudsters are out there like there’s no tomorrow,” said real
estate attorney Barry Miller.
Miller says COVID-19 forced more virtual online closings, giving
scammers more targets. He says many times the phony emails suggest there
were last-minute changes at closing.
“I know you got wiring instructions from the title company, but they
just changed banks so here’s the new ones,” Miller said.
Action 9′s Todd Ulrich contacted Fontaine’s real estate and title
companies. Ocala Land Title said it told Fontaine to contact her bank
the same day, and a manager said the company’s emails had not been
Fontaine says she hired an attorney and is considering a lawsuit against
her bank for not questioning the wire transfer.
“They’ve taken away pretty much what I was going to do the rest of my
life,” Fontaine said.
Consumer experts say victims should tell their bank to recall a wire
transfer the same day.
Victims should contact their local FBI field office. The agency says if
notified within 24 hours, it can freeze most phony back accounts.